I’m pretty lazy when it comes to wild food recipes. Maximum deliciousness for minimum effort is the forager’s way. So here are some ideas on making small batch mead that require next to no equipment or effort and no added yeast – just what is floating around naturally. Its a general technique that allows for all manner of personal flourishes and tweaks of your own using whatever happens to be in season. Being small batch, you needn’t invest lots of time and honey-money on
bonkers imaginative experiments…
If you thought mead was just for beardy types who hug trees and/or think they are Vikings, then think again. Before I made my own I thought all mead was sickly sweet. Most commercially made ones are. But it can be as sweet or dry or bitter as you like. Never one to pass by eager guinea pigs, I served one of my first meads to a group of high-end Edinburgh barmen and they loved its balance of sweet, bitter and sharp herbal aromatics. This was through no great skill on my part. Every batch i’ve made has been adorable in some way but this is thanks to the bees, not me. Look on it as making a cocktail, slowly, and with several thousand small helpers. It is one of my favourite way’s of imbibing the landscape.
Basic mead couldn’t be simpler. All you need is:
- A jar of unpasturised honey. Essentially this means non mass-produced honey from a trusted local supplier. A 454g jar of honey represents 22,700 bee trips (at 0.02g pollen per trip), which to my mind represents astonishing value. You could also befriend your local beekeeper…or start a hive of your own..?
- Unchlorinated water. I prefer to gather mine from the stream that runs near my house, but bottled still mineral water will do. You could use tap water if you boil and cool or leave it to stand in a large tub for a day or two until the chlorine evaporates. Maybe try to avoid hard water.
That’s it. Now just mix the two in a kilner, or other non-reactive container, in proportions of 1 part honey to between 3 and 8 parts water. The higher the proportion of honey, the more alcoholic your mead will be. I recommend starting with about 1 to 4 or 5 for a pleasant wine-strength of 10-15% ABV. (I’m guessing there – i’ve never measured it – but it tastes thereabouts). It helps if your honey is warm before mixing – just a little above room temperature – but not hot.
Mix the honey and water vigorously on at least a daily basis, preferably more often. Use a cyclonic stirring motion that draws air down into the liquid. You should notice it forming a frothy head. Keep it at an ambient household temperature without sealing the lid. This allows natural wild yeasts to colonise the solution, and prevents the build up of pressure.
My friend Andrew “Meadmaster” McFarlane, who keeps bees and makes (and drinks) a lot of mead, recommends stirring with a piece of heather root. (Check out his lovely foraging blog here). This will soon become your “magic fermenting wand”. As it takes on the natural flora of the ferment it can be used to pass helpful yeasts from batch to batch. I store my wands in the ferments between stirs. It will become, in every way, your magic wand, so Harry Potter fans may wish to try one braided with phoenix feathers or unicorn pubes.
Within a week you should notice the mix fermenting away. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t seem to be doing anything – just redouble your stirring efforts and ensure it is kept at a warmish temperature. I’ve never had one fail.
The mead is ready when you say it is – which will depend on your tastes and patience. As the sugar turns to alcohol the mead will taste less sweet and more boozy. Mine (usually about 1:5 proportions) reach a reasonable balance of booziness and dryness after about 3 to 4 weeks, at which point I put them in sealed flip-top bottles and refrigerate to slow further fermentation and prevent explosions. The mouth-feel should be effervescent and full of life. You’ll like it. Once fully fermented, i’m told meads generally improve with age. Good luck with that, i’ve never managed to hang onto mine for more than a couple of weeks. Too tasty.
All of this will make you “basic mead”, and very fine it is too. But the real pleasure and foraging fun comes when you start infusing your mead with wild plants – at which point you can mysteriously refer to it as an “Herbal Elixir Mead”, grow a long beard and start wearing capes. Or preferably not.
There are two ways of going about this. Cold infusion and hot infusion.
- Cold infusion means just adding whatever herb you fancy to mead while it ferments.
- Hot infusion requires you to heat the water to boiling point before and infuse your chosen plants (ie. make tea), then let it cool, before mixing with the honey and fermenting as above.
Strain out the plant matter before bottling. Play around and see what works best for you. Your failures will be delicious, and your successes too good to share!
My best results have come from bitter plants with strong aromatic flavours like tansy*, hops (both of these taste like candy shops in mead), meadowsweet (that actually gets its name from its traditional use in mead-making), mugwort and meu (aka spignel).
These suit my palette, but you could play around with anything you like, including soft fruits, roots, seeds and fungi (chaga and coconut milkcap mead was interesting). I’ve also enjoyed a hot infusion of noble fir, and a cold infusion of spring shoots and blossoms.
You can also turbo-charge your mead by using birch sap instead of water. Some hardcore foragy-brewy types (usually with beards) may try to discourage you from doing this, arguing that it makes no difference to the taste. Most of them will have just read this in a book, others may be missing the point: all the joy, energy and goodness that is in birch sap is now in your mead, whether you can taste the difference or not. Personally, that makes me very happy.
Many of my favourite meads have resulted from what I call “alliterative brewing”. So mugwort, meu and meadowsweet came out great, as did heather with hops and tansy with tutsan. Do let me know of any alliterative meads you are fond of.
Pilchard and pomegranite?
*Tansy should not be consumed in large quantities. This is unlikely to happen, as its jolly bitter
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- How to ferment wild greens